Interview with Vuk Cosic, part l: Small and big thingz on the internet and society…

by deborah on 11/30/2008

To make an intro for Vuk Cosic is simply not an easy task for several reasons; it’s hard to make something original, because as a speaker at conferences, or a leisure talk conversation companion, he is always very intriguing and rarely in bad mood…

Second, I always get the impression that he has thousands small Vuks somewhere hidden in his head, calculating and creating some new ideas…

Third… OK, I give up, and I’m gonna make you a bit of classique intro…

Vuk Cosic has been ‘accused’ as the main suspect for creating in the mid 90’s a new form of art called the net.art. He is the one responsible for recognizing the potential and aesthetic aspect of the code by using ASCII programming in order to create an art piece based on computer generated calculations. Jointly with his digital ‘neighborhood’ gang that included Olia Lialina, Jodi.org, Alexei Shulgin and Heath Bunting, he moved the concept of 0’s and 1’s into more philosophical and socially oriented fields.

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Cosic also worked at ‘pre-social networking age’ platform – mailing list Nettime, based on Hakim Bey’s theory presented in the book Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism. Even it’s a mailing-list that to today’s generation of kids deeply drawn into ‘Code is Poetry’ attitude may seem a bit prehistoric; the list is still today very very active.

Vuk Cosic exhibits his art pieces worldwide at solo and group exhibitions; he was presented at Venice Biennale in 2001, too. His artistic preoccupations are oriented towards reinterpretations of classical art pieces and masters in comparison with popular culture moments, such as Cezanne’s Card Players, Venus de Milo, Campbell’s Soup by Warhol, Eisenstein, Deep Throat, etc.

Therefore, Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Vuk Cosic…

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History of Art for Air ports by Vuk Cosic (c)

You are very often speaker at the conferences which have its main focus on the future… Seems to me logical than to ask you where are we going with the Internet?

VC: In general?! Oh, it’s an easy question. No, problem, I will tell you right away. It’s very simple. No, it’s not (laughs). One thing that I think is relevant and pertinent that we can extrapolate from the recent ten or fifteen years of development, since we have web specifically, not Internet as such. Apparently we are creating such a society and such scenarios in life, where digital component is coming more and more complementary, not such as alien component to our, otherwise, component lives. We are witnessing this shift and we have expressions such as e-education, e-banking and all of that.

But, now there’s not only in those scenarios, but also in social relations that we maintain via, obviously, social networking tools and platforms; and what is going on is just the same old rhetoric is now being applied in our, let’s say social functioning. So, we are doing the same old stuff, only easier and better. Also, thanks to the platform, or because of the platform – new platform that offers a new option, we are also doing new things in a way our perception of our social interconnections and interchange is now becoming broader. It does not only include our direct physical access to people with which we are somehow sharing the affinities; and, you know, position in space. At this moment, we are maintaining our entire ‘social graph’, I don’t like the expression. So, it’s the totality of our social networks through time. I just got pinged, a less then a month ago my ex-girlfriend, literary from 1987 – more then twenty years ago, and I find that profoundly intriguing. And, then, when we think of that, we necessarily fall in the realm of ‘a-ha, information over abundance, information anxiety, information overload’. Because I expect that type of question, I will tell you in advance…

Well, what it’s going on? There is an interesting piece of research by chick from Microsoft, Linda Stone. She came up with a concept not such a long time ago of ‘continuous partial attention’. That’s a bit of answer to the question how is the human being morphing into a new type of human being that will be able to absorb the new way we are socially connected. So, continuous partial attention is an expression, a new sintagm that is describing our ability to maintain higher number of meaningful social contacts then previously believed, like in 80’s this concept of Dunbar. Dunbar is a Scottish, I believe, anthropologist and he did experiments on monkeys and primates. He has discovered that 150 is the ultimate number of meaningful social contacts we can maintain. For 25 years or some, this was the only truth, except for now, when we have like these new horizons. This is the story; I believe this is a very influential component of our reflection of future of social internet.

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Extinguisher by Vuk Cosic (c)

Different web strategies in business took its places long time ago, but lately, with participatory internet, it looks like politicians also recognized the potential of social services and all that stuff… People are talking a lot on Obama’s victory in the context of excellent done web strategy, which was in my opinion, very very cool strategy. You also have experiences in that field…

VC: These are two different things that form one big entity. One thing is the political marketing ability of Obama’s campaign management to actually go with the voters: We are! That was a very pragmatic marketing decision. I have used exactly the same decision at last year’s political presidential election in Slovenia, as well as this year’s parliamentary. I know exactly how this works and as a matter a fact, I have been closely watching the Obama campaign since it started. This year I’ve worked directly, personally with people who ran Hillary Clinton campaign. They were part of our team in Ljubljana for the parliamentary election, so I had kind of direct touch.

What is much more interesting then the mere appreciation of, let’s say, the communication protocols of the young who voted, is whether there is any influence on policy in a way Obama is doing politics, which was a second part of your question; not only in US, obviously, we can discuss it in our arena. So, what is interesting is the question of participation, whether we are going to see a public dialogue that is able to generate, you know, social transformation and be situated somehow online; whether we are going to see some evolution of voting systems towards e-elections. That’s a very tiny little thing as a part of the larger issue, for example they are doing it in Estonia; and it’s not uninteresting. So, there are these two layers: one, let’s say, e-citizenship in very general sense; and then this political pulses, the voting systems – local elections maybe would be the good place to start. I’m working towards that in Slovenia for two years. It is hard to say what this can bring.

For sure, setting up a platform for actual e-participation would hurt the current balance (I know for Slovenian society  and I’m sure it’s exactly in many other places), where political parties are the main filter of which topics have the right to appear on the main stage of public interests. And now, if you take that controlling power away from the organized politics, from political parties and from organized religion – the churches of all colours, and introduce the option of actual citizen participation, is hard to announce what de facto is going to happen. But for me, at least, that’s how it was brought up, I’m sorry, but I can’t escape it.  It would definitely be a very useful experiment and a way to go. So, as much as I can influence the world around me, I’m pushing towards such scenarios, where we will empower citizens to actually influence political life, and their own lives through that. If this is complete utopia, well so be it, kill me.

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St. Sebastien by Vuk Cosic (c)

One very cool thing that is happening lately in slightly larger amount is the use of data visualization… I’ve heard that you also have plans to use it…

VC: Yeah, that’s particular trick I’m trying to pull in Slovenia right now as we speak, literary.  Tomorrow we are getting a new government and I’m already in discussion, very serious discussion with many people forming the government about creating mechanism for monitoring of activities of our government by the citizens. My ambition is, I have no problem in saying this publicly, cause that’s exactly how I’m describing it to my interlocutors and the government, to actually create such a trap, such a situation that in four years when the government will or will not change, it would be impossible to switch this monitoring system off; because the citizens will not be able to separate this from their basic human rights. I think, you know, if you do a mental exercise and you say: OK, the government is a company owned by set of shareholders which are citizens, it is thus necessary and only logical adjust that this owners have full inside into what this company does.  OK, government is not a company; we are not exactly owners but this mental exercise is a good little metaphor to use when reflecting on possibilities here. Obviously, there is this matter of degree. How much inside? How granulated? How high resolution inside?

I’m not a proponent of full frontal nudity, but let’s look into it, let’s dive into that question and find this thin line, let’s play safe, let’s not do foolish opening of everything, but still let’s not apriori say: it is very dangerous, we are in danger and our safety if we even touch anything. And there are voices of both types in Slovenia. Hopefully, the new government that was actually using very similar slogans to Obama, so the global context we had with Obama victory are both currently giving me some optimism. It’s a good moment to try such a thing. If it works that would be good, if not also good.

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International cannibalism by Vuk Cosic (c)

You have a company Case Sensitive, having clients world wide, and I know that you have started your career as art manager…

VC: Yeah, it’s true. What’s the question? Whether I’m good? Yeah, I’m good! (laughs), Yeah! Well, yeah… that’s a good training. I emigrated in 1991 from Serbia, first to Italy then to Slovenia. When I came to Ljubljana, it was a great place to be, and still is. I was working with the Soros foundation and for me the most logical thing was to do the cultural exchange between Serbia and Slovenia, between Belgrade and Ljubljana in particular. For me that was a natural state of affairs, in that time there was a zero communication what so ever and we were the only ones actually exchanging.

So, there was an element of transgression, and an element of, you know, forbidden fruit; which always motivated me and for about two or three years this is what I was doing, checking out the possibilities to do yet another project like that. And there were big shows, small shows, and all kinds of sharing and exchange. That activity formed my later, you know, in 1994 beginning of internet activism. It was all very logical and it was a smooth continuity for me, it wasn’t a shock. Now, that I have this business operation going with web consultancy those experiences are becoming very handy, because it means that I can find my way around obstacles, you know, thinking outside of a box…predictable kind of skills you can only earn if you are willing to take risks.

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What do you think how art & cultural sector, in general, perceive this ‘technology’ issue. I personally think, they are all in a kind of state of hibernation. But at the other hand, the new scene is kind of growing up, trying to use the term digital culture but still staying more into theory, than practice…

VC: I have relatively clear picture for my own use, I don’t insist this is the absolute truth. Simply, when we are talking about, you know, ‘we have to take culture online’, what we are really saying… I mean, we are forgetting for instance, that we do have a lot of culture online, this digital culture. What we are really talking about is: oh, we have this guys that are really bad at this, that they are lazy, incompetent, uninterested, not motivated and they don’t feel like going online. We are only discussing the classic culture, the pre-digital mind set.

You know in my opinion, let’s try and propose to libraries, museums, opera houses to think about their possible web based strategies. But, you know, if they don’t want, why should we push them too hard, it’s not their natural habitat and it’s all about their motivation. If they are not interested, let them be. Here we are bumping into another problem that societies and governments in South East Europe are simply maintaining a very very frozen status quo around different media. You know, the pinnacles of art whenever politicians discuss art are still pre-modern or early modern. Whereas, all of our countries in our region have a majority of cultural export exactly in these progressive formats, such as video art, digital or new media art.

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Star Trek by Vuk Cosic (c)

Do you think it’s a kind of syndrome of South Eastern Europe?

VC: Um…Yeah.  Because the art system has a zero capacity for self reflection and zero desire for asking themselves what is our position in the society, what is our role? I have all these friends everywhere in the world that have much less difficulties in surviving thanks to the existence of relatively opened system. Yes, in Amsterdam, Copenhagen art academies still teach painting, but they also accommodate digital media.

My friends get good normal state subsidies to travel around, to do production, to buy machines for work, because their systems allow it. In Slovenia, if you are planning to get some sort of a state subsidy, through the system’s many forms, even with a recommendation letter; you basically need to really badly hack the system. Usually, it’s never done in the shape of subsidy for digital art, but there is another wording and that’s sick. Slovenia in that sense is still like a regular Yugoslav Federal Republic. There are always exceptions but this is the rule.

To be continued…